Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Trinity

First Presbyterian – Lafayette, Louisiana
June 19, 2011 – Trinity Sunday (Year A) – Father's Day
Genesis 1:1 - 2:4a
Psalm 8 (sung with cantor)
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

"You know about The Trinity, right?" That was the first truly doctrinal question that was asked of me as I moved from Georgia to Louisiana. It was not so much of a question of what I knew as much as it was an attempt to be sure I understood where I was.

The Trinity stands as a means of describing completeness.  It is a word used religiously and culturally to describe something that can only be understood as the sum of its parts.  By the same token, the concept of a triune God has offered as much confusion as it has clarity for centuries.  Yet here in south Louisiana, the Trinity is simply a part of who we are and what we do. Everywhere you look you will see the Fluer de Lis.

Interpretations of this symbol vary widely, and I think it is fair to say that it is more of a cultural symbol than a religious symbol. But there it is – three leaves of a lily gathered as one.  You can scarcely know the whole without the parts being joined together.

That brings me back to the earlier question that I left to simmer for a few minutes – the question about knowing the Trinity. I was listening to cooking show on the radio while driving around town yesterday. The man began with melting butter, and then he said to throw in some onions. Next came some celery, and then of course – bell pepper!  He threw in some garlic for good measure – perhaps that was for wisdom.

What I find interesting about all of this is that there is a unique blending of flavors that comes from the Cajun version of the Trinity that cannot be understood apart from one aspect or character of the ingredients. The Trinity is the missing link that makes things taste different when you get too far above highway 10.

And so it is with the church. Throughout the centuries we have disagreed about the person and work of Jesus as our redeemer and how that fits in with the idea of God as creator, dispenser of wisdom, and sustainer of all that is.

One of the earliest recorded uses of Trinitarian language to describe God is found in our passage from Matthew.  In fact, this is the only place that Jesus explicitly uses the formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It is also interesting to me that the participants listed in this story are the eleven remaining disciples that have gathered with Jesus. We don't know if any others joined them.  What we are told is that they worship him – but some doubted.

Jesus doesn't seem to mind. It doesn't seem to matter that some of them have doubts about this man who has been raised from the dead. How they can have their doubts I cannot imagine, but it doesn't seem to matter to Jesus.

What matters is that we understand the fullness of God cannot be defined by the person and work of Jesus, by the glory and grandeur of creation, or even by the emotional and spiritual pinnacle of feeling and knowing God's presence. Thinking of any one of these alone as God places us in the African parable about three blind men describing an elephant.

One man has the tail and swears the elephant is like a rope. Another man has a leg and claims the beast to be like a tree. Another man has the trunk and proclaims it to be like a serpent, only thicker and stronger. And so it is with the church when we proclaim what we believe God is without remaining open to God's presence.

I believe that is why the authors of the lectionary had us start our celebration of the Trinity with the story of creation.  In the beginning the earth was a formless void – tovu vah vohu is the phonetic Hebrew. It means chaos. In the beginning there was chaos, which was created by God. A wind from God swept over the waters. The Ruah of God was the breath of God – the spirit of God.  The waters were the unknown, untamed chaos of creation. God is ever present in chaos.

Then begins a rhythm in which God creates order out of chaos and blesses all things.  Finally humankind was created, the only thing said to be in the image of God – both male and female. What matters in this story is not that we are fallen and marred. What matters is that in our inception we were accounted for as good because we are a part of what God has done and is doing!

That doesn't mean that we are without a need for redemption.  It simply means that our story is not limited by our weakness.  Our story has a beginning that is far before the decisions that we make and an ending far beyond the chaos – or the order – that we are able to create.

Still, it would be na├»ve to suggest that our decisions do not matter.  In fact, our decisions and actions have more weight than we can imagine.  That's why we have Paul's parental tone speaking to the Corinthians.  A central theme in 2 Corinthians is reconciliation, and our passage comes toward the end – after Paul has defended his ministry and described the conflicts he sees in their fellowship. In some ways he is like the parent who tells the child to go pick their own switch for the whipping they are going to get. Yet in the end he takes the tone to say, "I hope I am wrong about all of this."

What we can hope to receive and to give from this passage is nothing short of the encouragement I received before officiating the internment of our beloved Mac Drake last Monday. On the way out I was told to "remember whom I represent." Of course we must all remember whom we represent in all things, and that is nothing short of the very God of the universe who creates, redeems, and sustains all things.

Jesus said to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Baptism for Jesus, even the resurrected Jesus, was a means of proclaiming a new orientation. John baptized Jesus – the fully human Jesus – in a baptism of repentance, and the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus while the voice of God called him "my beloved son."

Through this Jesus, baptism has now become more than a way to claim whom you will follow, emulate, and be disciplined by. We are not baptized in the name of a man, in the characteristic of a deity, or in the hope that our commitment will make us more loveable.

No! Through baptism, we instead become the roux. You know about roux, right? It's a mixture of butter and flour used to thicken up a sauce. Remember that cooking show I mentioned earlier? That trinity of vegetables is simmered down and the flavors seep one into the other. By itself it can do little more than make you hungry. That's why you need a roux!  In the show I listened to they added in some flour and chicken stock and simmered it down before folding in some heavy cream. I'm not entirely sure what they were making – might have been a crab bisque or chowder. It could be a lot of things.

And so it is with the church. Even now with aging members and concerns for the future, we are poised for some great creation – as long as we can allow ourselves to be steeped in the fullness of God.

Friends, God is not finished creating – for it is God's character to bring order out of chaos. God is not finished redeeming – for it is God's character to restore value to that which was created as good. God is not finished sustaining – for all things exist through the providence of God's Holy Spirit.

You may have your doubts about these things, and that's OK. Jesus does not seem to stop inviting us into ministry when things don't go the way we expect them to go. God does not stop expecting us to teach others by loving as we have been loved, and God's Holy Spirit will never be limited by the chaos this world seems to dish out.

You and I – by ourselves we might never do more than leave someone else unsatisfied.  Yet through God's help, through participating in what God is doing in the world, we may yet feed thousands with a particular flavor that can only come from one place. May the God who creates, redeems, and sustains forever be the place from which we baptize, sanctify, and serve as we experience and share the Kingdom that Christ revealed that is both present and yet to come! Amen, amen, and again I say amen.

Friday, June 17, 2011

You’re on Fire!

First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, Louisiana
Day of Pentecost, Year A
June 5, 2011
Scripture:
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Acts 2:1-42 (Performed as a readers theater - written by The Rev. Eric Beene and used with permission.)

"You're on fire!" is a phrase that I use every now and then. It comes from a restaurant I used to work in.  Every server (which is what I did there, I was a waiter) had a station of three or four tables that he or she was primarily responsible for, but every server was also responsible for every customer they walked by.  You did not walk past a dirty dish without picking it up unless your hands were full.  You did not walk by a table that had not been greeted without taking a drink order and seeing that it got to them.  If two or more were gathered at the dish pit, one of them would take the responsibility of scraping dishes so that the other could wash their hands and take clean dishes to the cooks before checking to see if there was food to go out.  If there was food to go out you took it, whether it was for your table or not.  You were never idle.  It was high energy!  We worked hard, and it was fun!  We had a code language that helped us get things done with minimal confusion, and the most prized comment of all was, "You are on fire!"  That meant, "I can be better at being who I am because you are who you are."  Though there were a variety of faiths represented in that place, that attitude exists for me today as a model for the Holy, Pentecostal, and Apostolic church.

Another notion of being "on fire" that I occasionally think of comes from a song called Kid Fears by the Indigo Girls.  In this song they lace harmonies around questions about what we wouldn't give to be released from the fears that haunt us from childhood, the things done to us and the mistakes we make.  The question they ask is, "Are you on fire from the years?"

I think the question they are asking is about motivation.  They seem to be asking if you are more motivated by your pain or by your potential for joy?  I think it suggests that being "on fire" can just as easily mean that you are consumed by your pain as it can mean that you are a force of beauty because of who you are and how you relate to others.  Right now - in this space today - I want you to know that I see you as a force of beauty because of who you are and how you relate to others.  When you leave this place it is up to you to determine why and how you burn.  But we are here today because of our relationship with God and with each other.  And you, my friends, are on fire!

Now let's talk a little about Pentecostal fire.  My reaction to the term Pentecostal is tied up in my own baggage regarding the "Pentecostal" movements in modern Christianity.  Most of these are relatively new and are often associated with fits of frenzy and wild speech that are supposed to be indicators that the Holy Spirit is present.  On the surface it might seem that there is precedent for this in the Acts passage, but I think a deeper look says that this was actually quite an orderly affair in which people heard clearly what God had to say to them.  Perhaps it was out of order for what they expected to hear, but it was not out of order for God's will.  So, when we talk of the church needing to be more "Pentecostal" we are simply saying that we need to be more in tune with God's Spirit.

Rick Ufford-Chase is someone who exemplifies the Pentecostal approach I am describing. He is an Elder and an advocate for peace.  He has served in a variety of ministry positions ranging from developing border ministries in Arizona to accompanying civilians in areas torn by violence.  In 2004 Rick was the moderator of the 216th meeting of the General Assembly of the PC(USA) in Richmond, VA.  The Moderator's position exists for two purposes. The first is to ensure a faithful process for decision-making.  The second is to become somewhat of an ambassador for the church, helping congregations and governing bodies to discern the will of God in light of the decisions made at General Assembly.

During that time he was quoted in the Richmond Times-Dispatch as having said, "We have to live mission rather than go one week a year. Are we willing to become God's truly Pentecostal multi-cultural church? Classism in our churches makes it uncomfortable to welcome new immigrants. I ask people: 'What makes your church special?' The number one answer is: 'We are very friendly.' Forgive me, friends. If we are so friendly, why are we a dying church? Jesus calls us to be friendly with those no one wants to be friendly with in our community."

Those are some harsh words, and there is some truth to them. Yet this is a congregation that "get's it." We have a rich history of involvement in the community. We care deeply and actively for our members. We support programs like Meals on Wheels and CUPS that extend beyond our reach, because we are not afraid to ask for help from other congregations – even those in other denominations. This is a congregation that supports the Wesley Student Union, is active in Presbytery, and shares an ongoing relationship with organizations like Family Promise and the United Christian Outreach. We are a generous congregation, participating in more special and denominational offerings than some congregations that are many times our size. And need I remind you that jaws drop every time I tell people that this congregation with an average worship attendance of 60 people produced and distributed over 500 Christmas baskets and 300 Easter baskets to the needy?

So why on earth do we need to hear about the dry bones today?  Well I guess it is a way to keep us in check.  I guess it's a call to look at ourselves and ask how we are connected and animated.  It occurs to me that one of the weaknesses in our congregation is that those who are not involved beyond attending worship are much less connected than those who are involved in leadership and other activities.  Really that's no different from most churches. The real problem is that, during times of crisis, we can end up feeling like we are in the valley of dry bones and have no one to turn to.

Maybe some one here has had that feeling, the feeling like you are not really alive.  Feeling like you aren't sure where your next breath will come from or if you care.  The feeling of being let down by someone you trusted or of letting someone down who trusted you.  In this imperfect world we are each guaranteed to experience hardship.

Even in our work as a congregation there are those who are involved that can sometimes feel like they are "the only ones who get it."  Then again, the changes in our society can leave us feeling like we are not sure how to speak a word of hope and peace that others will hear in their own language.

Yes, friends the valley is here, too.  So take a second and listen for God's breath.  [Pause for a moment of silence.] Did you hear it?  I did.  It sounded like your neighbor breathing, but I know that it came from God.  Take a deep breath and know that God loves you.  Remember not to beat yourself up over the things not yet accomplished because it's not about what we have not done.  According to the scripture it is about what God is doing.

The reality of Pentecost is that an awareness of God's activity came into the world at a time when God's chosen people were celebrating and thanking God for the harvest.  This passage, with all its apocalyptic glory, is a sign of the need to gather what has been sown because the end has come!  And regardless of any other ideas about the end of days, we need only know that our end... our identity... our purpose for living... is found in Christ Jesus.  The world as we know it – the world as we attempt to define it – ends where our faith in Christ begins.

Sons and daughters, women and slaves, these were the ones who were powerless in ancient Israel.  To the powerless is given the task of speaking God's word – telling us how things are and how they should be.  Men, young and old, these were the folks who had the power to make decisions and determine their own fate and that of others.  To the powerful is given the task of putting God's word into action.

Now this is the part where we have to ask ourselves if we really want the gift of the Spirit.  In the "glorious day of the coming of the Lord" things get messed up.  Things follow the order of God rather than the will of a people.  Things like borders and boundaries get crossed in favor of care for the needy.  National priorities have to be examined against the standard of Kingdom living rather than peace and prosperity for some in the midst of the pain of others.  And even the structures we build to provide order may get challenged and broken if they are found to limit people instead of empowering them.  But don't worry.  It's not all gloom and doom.  The Spirit of God is in the business of building people up into a community.  And when I look at this community, I see a Pentecostal vision of people who are on fire for God's will!

This Pentecostal vision requires us to let go of what we want God to be and open ourselves up to who God is.  It gives us an image of what the church is and what our role as individuals might be.  It turns the tables of power and reminds us that the end of the world as we know it is only the beginning of something bigger.  That "something bigger" is the opportunity to see God's activity and to know where God is pushing us to go.  It is the opportunity to understand the nature of God and our relatedness to God through our relationships with others and with all of creation.  It is the ability to live like every morning of every day is a new day dawning in the land of our true citizenship, that being the Kingdom of God.

So, old men and women, dream your dreams.  Young men and women, follow your visions.  Listen to the prophetic call of those who are despised, those who are poor, those who speak the word of God that we do not want to hear.  For in them is our salvation known.  There are no dry bones here –
unless you have been holding your breath.  The Spirit of the Living God has fallen on all flesh, and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.  Halleluiah!  Amen!

Monday, June 06, 2011

Intimacy and Advocacy

First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, Louisiana
May 29, 2011 – Easter (6A)
Acts 17:22-32
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-17
John 14:15-21

How many of you have a word that bothers you – a word that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up and your gut clench a little bit?  Anyone care to share his or her word?  I have a good friend who feels that way about the word 'pumice', and I don't know why.  My word is 'irregardless'.  It's a double negation.  Though there are those that would defend its usage as satire, I've never heard it used in jest.  I've only heard it used to say "without regard," which would simply be regardless.

A word that makes some people a little uncomfortable, especially in church, is intimacy.  Consider what images come to mind when I mention the word intimacy.  The topic of intimacy or the thought of becoming intimate with someone seems not to apply to church, at least not in our culture – but that is exactly what our scripture passages are about.  Intimacy implies particular knowledge between people.  It assumes a closeness that comes from shared experiences and events.

Our Gospel lesson speaks of intimacy.  It is a portion of the farewell discourse in John's gospel.  In the chapter before, Jesus was eating with his disciples – an act of great intimacy – then he got up and washed their feet!  Think about how much vulnerability was required of Jesus and the disciples for him to do this.

Then Jesus sends Judas out to betray him and tells the disciples that he is leaving them, but only to prepare a place before coming to get them – and there will be another Advocate to watch over them.  All of this is both comforting and cryptic at the same time.

The Advocate is nothing less than God's Holy Spirit – the indwelling presence of God in whom we live and move and have our being.  That may be getting a little closer to home, but it's still a strange mix of comforting concepts and cryptic, insider language. Perhaps we would do better to think on our experiences of intimacy and advocacy.

Take a moment to think of a close relationship from your childhood – maybe your first best friend or aunt or uncle.  Picture that person's face in your mind.  Consider the joy of being known and accepted.  For me that person was Kevin King.

I can still remember the feeling of sitting on the edge of the playground.  I was the new kid, and Kevin was the first guy to consider me worthy to play with.  Being chosen when there is no reason to be chosen sticks with you, and we became the kinds of friends who did not just share common interests.  We became the kind of friends who knew and understood each other's character.  Intimacy, for us, was not simply sharing our Star Wars toys – it was believing that our toys were more fun to play with when we played with them together.  Kevin taught me about intimacy.

Another friend of ours, Bindul Shaw, taught me about advocacy.  Bindul's parents were from India, and their home was a most hospitable place.  I loved learning about their culture and sharing his friendship.  One day on the way in from recess I referred to Bindul, quite proudly, as my 'Indian friend.'  He said, "I'm not an Indian."  I thought he was messing with me, so I said, "Yes you are, your parents are from India!" With a very serious face this 3rd grade boy looked me in the eye and said, "My parents were born in India, but I was born here.  I'm an American. I can be your friend, but I am not your 'Indian' friend."  Well - that shut me up, and from then on I knew how to be a friend to others who were not like me.  Or at least, I knew what was required to be a friend to others who were not like me. I had to see them for who they were.  Bindul, I would even say, taught me what was required to be an advocate for others.  If I was to be his friend, it meant that I had to embrace the need to be sure others saw him as my friend – not my "category of person" friend.

Advocacy, like intimacy, requires knowledge of someone else's story.  That knowledge inspires a common purpose.  That purpose, once realized, creates a sense of vigilance – knowledge, once gained, cannot be ignored.

If we take these ideas of intimacy and advocacy as forms or paradigms, we find that they are reflected in the law that is written on our hearts, and even a madman can sometimes express them.  John – the Choir Director, not the Gospel writer nor the madman – and I were talking the other day about a choral piece I heard at a Chorale Acadienne performance.  It was based on the poem Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart while in an asylum.  In 1943 Benjamin Britten took this poem written by a man reflecting on God's presence while in the grips of mental illness and and formed it into the choral work known as Rejoice In The Lamb.  I've asked Sue Turner to share a portion of this cantata to demonstrate how powerful the ideas of intimacy and advocacy can be.

For the Mouse is a creature                                 
Of great personal valor.                                      
For this is a true case--                                         
Cat takes female mouse,                                     
Male mouse will not depart,                                
but stands threat'ning and daring.                  
"If you will let her go,
I will engage you,
As prodigious a creature as you are."
For the Mouse is a creature.
Of great personal valor.
For the Mouse is of
An hospitable disposition.


Thank you, Sue!  Of course the more traditional phrase is to ask if you are a man (or woman) or a mouse.  Here, on this Memorial Day weekend, we are reminded – albeit by a madman and a mouse – of the idea of self-sacrifice and valor.  Here we are reminded of what it means to live as hospitable creatures, honoring the sacrifices of others through sacrificial living.  Here, as in 1 Peter, we are reminded that intimacy and advocacy can get you into trouble.

"Who will hurt you for being nice?" he seems to say, and it sounds almost tongue in cheek when it gets followed with, "if you do suffer for it, consider that a blessing!" What? Suffering is a blessing? Maybe suffering for standing up to the cat gets you points for bravery, but what about suffering just because you look tasty?  What about suffering because you have chronic pain?  What about suffering because of things that are out of your control?  Yes, even then – maybe even especially then.

For the ancient Israelites, items to be used in the temple were blessed and dedicated for one purpose only.  Blessing indicates being set aside, being known, being selected. Sometimes this level of selection is something we would rather not have, and I don't mean to say that God is doling out pain and suffering – rather that God is present in all things.  Still, the opportunity of suffering can leave you feeling like my friend Ashley.

Several years ago, a group of friends went mountain bike riding.  They got a little separated on the trail.  The lead bikers waited for the rest to join, but Ashley never showed up.  A couple of bikers from another group passed by and my friends asked if they had seen anyone else on the trail.  They said, "Oh, you mean that woman who is screaming prayers to Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Kali and anyone else who will listen?"

That was Ashley!  That was the Athenians – hedging their bets with the unknown God.  The monument still exists.  You can see it all around in a culture that is hungry for spiritual fulfillment but not interested in religion.  I used to think that was simply a cop out.  Lately I have come to believe that the church has its own way of hedging its bets.

The church can easily be a place where intimacy is non-existent.  It can become a place where experiences are shared, but only with a few.  It can become a place where programs are designed (or lamented for when they don't exist) as a way of doing the work of caring without really getting involved with the messiness of relationships.

The church can also be a place where members call and check in on those who do not show up.  I know of a member who calls another homebound member every night, whether there is anything to say or not.  I know a member who gives of his personal resources to support individuals that are truly in need.

I know some members who cannot be here for our community grill suppers, but they donated a grill because they believe in the importance of building relationships with our community.  I know a group of people in this congregation that believe in the power of prayer to open us up to God's abiding presence, and so they practice the spiritual discipline of prayer for others every Wednesday.

There are hundreds more stories like these that I barely know.  What I do know is this: through Jesus Christ we have been chosen through no merit of our own.  By God's grace we are formed into a covenant community, because God has decided that all of creation is more fun when shared with us.  Since we have been selected by God and given the gift of God's Holy Spirit, we cannot help but join in the playfulness of God's work to advocate for others, to see them as God sees them – even suffering with them, maybe even suffering because of our love for them.

In the end we find that there is no "us" and "them".  There is only God.  There is only the opportunity to love as we have been loved, and through God's love become - for someone else - the Advocate that we have received.

For as it was written in the Gospel of John, "They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them."

The God of the universe is longing to be revealed – even through you, even through me. Though there is some sense that this will happen in a final judgment, I would rather hedge my bets by experiencing and demonstrating God's abiding presence here and now.  Wouldn't you?

Some will surely scoff at the idea of experiencing God in the here and now.  Others will surely say, "We will hear more about this."  In all things, may God be glorified by our response to the invitation of the Advocate, no matter how imperfect it may be.  Amen, Amen, and again I say, Amen.

That's For Me To Know And You To Find Out...

First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, Louisiana
June 5, 2011 – Easter (7A)
Acts 1:6-14
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

A few days ago my 7-year-old daughter asked me what it means to say, "That's for me to know, and for you to find out!" She had seen this in a book and wasn't sure what to make of it. She understood the words, but the way they were being used didn't quite make sense.  We talked about the idea that sometimes this phrase is used to tease someone and make a person feel like she or he is not important enough to know all that there is to know about something.  We also talked about its use as a way of letting someone know that there is a prize in store for her or him.  Sometimes this phrase can also be a way to let someone know that whatever it may be, it is none of that person's business.

Secret knowledge, insider trading – that's what the gospel message is all about, right? It sure seems that way by looking at today's texts. In Acts we have the metaphysical transportation of the resurrected Jesus into heaven.  1Peter seems to ordain suffering as some aspect of God's intention, and John's Gospel reads like some Dr. Seuss-like game of Go-Fish for the souls of humanity between Jesus and God.

As far as the larger narrative goes, the story presented in John's Gospel would have happened before Jesus died, so we'll start there.  What's happening in this story is that Jesus has just finished telling the disciples that he would be leaving them and that the Lord would send another Advocate. Not another person, but the very Spirit of God would be coming to dwell amongst them.  He wraps up the whole experience by breaking out into prayer.

What I find interesting about Jesus' prayers in the Gospel of John is that most of them are not requests or petitions for God to guide him.  Generally, the author of this gospel has Jesus praying in order to make a statement. In John's Gospel, Christology – Jesus as God's self revelation – is a central theme.  God has given people to Jesus so that those people may know that Jesus and God are of one substance – not just working together but literally aspects of one another.

God's name has been entrusted to these individuals; literally the intimate knowing of the character and will of God has been entrusted to them.  Why? Because Jesus, the man, could not remain – if he did, then he, as a man, would be worshiped and elevated rather than God.

So Jesus prayed for their unity, so that those who gather in Jesus' name may enjoy the same unity that Jesus does with God – since Jesus was and is God's self revelation for all time and space. Sadly it does not often feel that God has answered that prayer with a yes. I don't think that is because we are splintered beyond all hope for unity.  I think it is because we have mistaken uniformity for unity.  Most of us talk about unity, but what we want is uniformity.

It's kind of like a visit I once received from a very nice, young man representing the Church of Later Day Saints. "Oh, a Pastor?" he said. "We love talking to Pastors because they always know their Bible," he said with an open Bible in his hand. That was followed by a stiff but well memorized shpeel about the sad state of division in the church. Then came the hook, "Don't you, as a Pastor feel that the number of denominations and different churches is opposed to the purposes of Christ?"

I could see where he was going a mile away, so I said, "Actually I think the problem is more located around our lack of ability to see different denominations and congregations as part of the same church." Blink-blink went his eyes.  I continued, "I believe that God created differing expressions of faithfulness because there is not a one of us that has it completely right. Of course, that's not because God needs one particular church more or less than any other.  It is because we do. We can't all be in the same religious organization without making things move toward our desires instead of being bent toward God's."

Well, there just wasn't much left to say after that.  I'll admit that if he had taken me up on the deal it would have been even more difficult, though.  You see the open end of that question is to find out a way to move forward together. Probably the first thing we could have done is pray. I don't think it is even possible to accept someone else's position without turning to God and asking for the strength, wisdom and will power to find out what is common, good, and of God between their perspective and mine.

Maybe that is how the disciple's felt when those men in white came out of nowhere to ask them why they were looking at the sky.  Really? What kind of question is that? It almost seems a little petty and sarcastic, as if to say, "Wow. Didn't see that coming. He's only been telling you for month's now."

Either way, the proclamation of Jesus' departure and return was like a bucket of cold water on their heads. I would imagine the trip back to Jerusalem included quite a few, "Did you see…?" and "Was that really…?"

We have no way to know if they were terrified or filled with joy on the way back, but we do know what they were told. They saw the resurrected Jesus – the man who had conquered death – and they asked him the obvious question. "OK, great! You can't die. Now we'll resurrect the Kingdom of Israel, right? Now we'll show those Romans what power is all about… right?" Then Jesus simply, and unequivocally, answers them by saying, "That is for me to know and for you to find out."

Then he tells them what they need to know.  He tells them that they will receive power, but not the kind they want.  He tells them that they will go to the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, but not to unite them politically.  Then he tells them that they will go first and foremost to the Samaritans – the very people they feel most at odds with.  But Samaria is only the beginning, for they will go to the very ends of the earth.

But first they will wait. Why? Couldn't God have given them the gift of the Holy Spirit right then and there? Of course God could have. But God did not give God's Spirit to them for their own use – not even for their own salvation. In fact, you might even say that receiving the Holy Spirit all by yourself doesn't really do much for anyone.

So, the disciples returned. They gathered others together, and they waited. And while they waited they did stuff that put them in a position to receive God's active presence.  It may seem hard to identify with their story, since we live in a time that is after Pentecost, after the Reformation, and after the various Great Awakenings. Philosophically we are children of the Enlightenment living in a post Modern world, and some even say we are religiously in a post Christian society.

Come to think of it, we may have more in common with these disciples than anyone ever has!  Except for this – we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. We know, as those Christians that the author of 1 Peter addressed, that life is a smelting furnace designed to consume the impurities of our souls. We know that no matter how bad things get, the presence of God dwells richly within us.

I'm sure this room is filled with hundreds of stories to describe what I am talking about. In my office you'll see one of mine. It is a picture of a bird that Treva gave me for my birthday a few years back. You see this bird brought me a message from God.

It came to us during a time of trial in our family life. We were discerning God's calling and in between pastorates.  My father had died only weeks before the bird came to call. We had just put our house on the market and then the housing market hit the lowest point it had hit in years. We had two kids, a mortgage, no income beyond our savings, and a house that would not sell for its full value. We were not in a happy place. I'd like to say that it qualifies for sharing in the suffering of Christ, but I cannot. Many other believers have suffered worse losses than we did, and in the end we found the providential hand of God to be holding us throughout. In the midst of all of that this bird came and lighted on the corner of our deck. It looked kind of like a fat woodpecker (later we found out that it was a Northern Flicker), and it kept looking over its shoulder to reveal a red marking on the back of its head. Normally these marks are V shaped. This one had a perfect heart shaped marking. It was like a little love note from God, and it sat on our porch for at least 20 minutes or more flashing its valentine to us.

Now, I am not one for superstition, but it seemed a good enough reminder to me that God's love is pervasive, ever present, and final. Not only that, it reminded me that I am here for the same reason as that bird – to glorify God!

The question is not what to do. The question is not where is Jesus or when will he come back. The question is, how do we become aware of the gift of the Holy Spirit – and how do we respond to it? I would suggest that looking at birds and clouds may help us to remember what God has done for us, but in order to move forward we must be persistent in prayer, diligent in gathering with those who seek God's will, and always seeking God's kingdom instead of the glory days of our past.

I don't know exactly what that means for the church, or for our congregation.  I don't know what that means for our buildings or our relationships in the community. I do know that God will guide us, if we will follow. I do know that Jesus did not leave to wait on an alarm clock to bring him back. Jesus died so that he might be joined with God and share in dominion over all of heaven and earth. Jesus rose so that he might be known as the Christ – God's self revelation for all of time and space – and Jesus rose so that we might be known as the Body of Christ here and now.

If we can be devoted in prayer and disciplined in action – including confessing and forgiving where we fail – I believe the scriptures that seem to tease with, "That's for me to know and you to find out," can instead become an invitation into a life that is not without pain and suffering but is truly worth living. May we that have heard God's word today set our sights not only on the kingdoms of days gone by but also on the relationships with those we most dislike. May we be reminded of the indwelling Spirit of God, and be moved by the will of God – So that God may be glorified in all things.  Amen. Amen. And again I say, Amen.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

America Bless God

This was my newsletter article for June/July. It came out just before Memorial Day, so I thought I would share it here...

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name. Psalm 103:1

“America, Bless God!” I remember seeing this phrase on a homemade sign in Chester, VA in the days following September 11, 2001. I thought it interesting and strange at the time. I don’t know who wrote it or why, but I believe they were trying to make a different statement than “God, Bless America.” It reminds me of a time during prayer when Zoe said, “Daddy, you’re being kind of demanding to God.” Of course there is more to it than all of that. Scripture tells us “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

So, there is nothing wrong with asking God to bless America, but there is more to it than that. A blessing can mean many things. We often think of it as getting something good. Some people even use it to describe a state of providence in the midst of trials. “I am blessed.” has become a popular answer to the question, “How are you?” In the ancient temple practices, and in some churches today, items are blessed or dedicated for a particular function. Blessing equates to calling and service.

On Memorial Day and the Fourth of July we will honor and remember those who have served in the military and fought for our freedom. It is a good and appropriate thing to do. With these celebrations we must also find ways to give honor and glory to God. We must be certain that in blessing the Lord we are giving praise for God’s providence and seeking to serve as instruments of grace and peace. For this many have died. For this many of us live. For this - for the demonstration of God’s power to redeem and save - we were created. May God continue to bless our fellowship, as we seek ways to bless the Lord in our corporate and common lives. Amen!

As an addendum, I think the folks at www.dogblessyou.org have a good take on the above.